Organisatie - 31 januari 2013

Efficiency with empathy


Who will take over as first-in-command at Wageningen UR? After twelve years at the helm, Aalt Dijkhuizen will be making way for a new face in March. And we know exactly what sort of leader is needed, it seems from a small sample of views sought by Resource. ‘We could do with a few feminine qualities.’

The first job ad has already appeared in the national daily the NRC. What is required, it said, is ‘a strong director and an experienced chairperson’. But how does the rank and file in Wageningen UR see it? We asked ten students and staff members for their views on The Ideal Leader. ‘I immediately think of a mother figure,’ says student Antoon Kanis. ‘The top floor of Atlas is a bastion of greyhaired men and we have very few women professors here. I don’t want to do down Aalt Dijkhuizen, but a very hard line has been taken in discussions here in the last few years. I think things could have gone differently with a woman in charge.’

But make no mistake, it has got to be a tough woman. ‘Because there are a lot of egos in Wageningen, you need a strong person in charge,’ says environmental technologist and Wetsus director Cees Buisman. PhD researcher in Management Jeroen Candel comments: ‘Let’s keep Dijkhuizen’s good qualities. That means: someone who stands their ground, who can take difficult decisions and builds up a network that benefits the university.’ The panel is pretty much in agreement on the direction Wageningen UR needs to take. ‘The course seems clear to me,’ states Piet Boonekamp, business unit manager at PRI. ‘The global food problem is a huge societal challenge for us. We need to produce more food as well as better quality food, and much more sustainably. That relates to climate and nature issues too. And we have a reputation for that; that is Wageningen’s core business.’ PhD student Candel is the most categorical about it: ‘The new boss must not change course.’

It is especially important to stay on course in DLO, says Boonekamp: ‘The new chair must make sure we continue to be an excellent research organization. In DLO there is a danger – under pressure from the funding bodies – of slipping into research that doesn’t contribute much to innovation. Just gathering data. I think we should abandon this kind of research and routine applied research in favour of addressing complex questions that only Wageningen UR is equipped to tackle.’

Efficiency with empathy

Happily, the profile drawn up by the Supervisory Board, led by Job Cohen, largely matches the wishes of students and staff. According to the advertisement, what is sought is a ‘strong director and an experienced chairperson who is capable of staying on course, is not afraid of taking difficult decisions, is someone people can relate to and who can persevere.’ But most of the requirements refer to soft characteristics, exactly what our panel wants to see. The person sought ‘provides space’, ‘looks for connections and is visible’, and has ‘a proven capacity to build alliances.’ The supervisory board places more emphasis than do students and staff on a commercial leader: ‘experience in the business world is certainly an advantage.’ But he or she should also ‘understand the processes and culture within the university.’ The supervisory board does not have any change of course in mind for the university. But DLO seems to pose a bigger challenge, so the task there is ‘to guide the strategic repositioning and the needed transformation of DLO, partly focusing on funding.’ As expected, the new leader will earn considerably less than his or her predecessor, and the salary will conform to the Balkenende norm. And will it be a man or a woman? There is certainly no explicit preference. In four and a half pages of advertisement the word woman is not mentioned.

Reward, don’t punish
Although Wageningen scores well in visitations and rankings, there is room for improvement on some fronts. The new director should pay more attention to policy on quality, says Fre Pepping, managing director of VLAG research school. ‘In order to get hold of someone like Professor Ben Scheres all sorts of alternative funding channels were thought up. That is not the way to go about it, of course. If a top person becomes available, you should be able to apply a readymade strategy straightaway. The quality of the education could be improved too. Do away with the rule about scores of fi ve and just set up a binding recommendation on whether a student continues.’ Quality is also a matter of personel management with a human face, says associate professor Kirsten Verkooijen. ‘It has been demonstrated so often that people who enjoy their work are more effective. This university stands for the quality of life, so that should be reflected in its own human resources policy. Please don’t let it be someone who goes crazy for lists and targets. I believe in rewards rather than punishments and I would argue for someone who motivates staff.’

Here we touch on perhaps the most commonly expressed wish. The new director of the board needs to be someone who can bring people together, a quality lacking in the current incumbent. He or she should not only connect people, but also different parts of the organization and people of differing views and ideas.’ ‘Let’s have a listener this time,’ says Fre Pepping. ‘In general I am happy with what Aalt has done, but now I would like more of a people manager.’ For Piet Boonekamp of PRI, this capacity to connect must go beyond a personality trait. The new leader needs to really achieve connection. ‘After 15 years of Wageningen UR, the university and DLO are not enough of a unified whole. We put a lot of energy into it but it remains wishful thinking. There are still fences. One example is tackling the high levels of antibiotics used in the livestock sector. We have already been saying for a long time that there is a big opportunity for collaboration for Plant and Animal scientists here. And for that you need a leader who says it’s important. In this context vision means: investing seriously in new focus points for research.’

Boonekamp sees fences within his own business unit too. ‘We have now gone too far in a culture of blame and that hampers integration. At DLO we face a shrinking market. We are doing our best to help each other but at the end of the day you still think, what’s in it for me? Because that is what you are judged on. That’s why we need a people person, with nerve and vision.’

Tough and credible
And who should it be? One name is mentioned with striking regularity: Louise Fresco, who studied tropical agriculture at Wageningen. She was a director at the FAO for nine years and is now professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Amsterdam. She has written several infl uential books about food, and gave the founders’ day lecture here last year. Our panel describe her as ‘very interesting’, ‘tough and credible’, ‘a very good one’ and a ‘fantastic example of combining science and management.’ In other words, get on the phone!

Illustration: Pascal Tieman